ELIZABETH ARNOLD | late 1980s
[Poetry Staff, 1986; Poetry Editor, 1987; Editor, 1988–89; Nonfiction Editor, 1988–89]
I have so clear a memory of walking for the first time up to the old Chicago Review building the night I joined the poetry staff in the early 1980s. It was called Lillie House, an appealingly tall, red-brick former house near the Lab School, and not far from the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Robie House, on 58th Street. I was nervous. I had never worked at a magazine before. And though I was asked to join by a friend, I didn’t know anybody on the poetry staff.
What I found was not what I expected. A meeting of the poetry staff of a nationally recognized literary magazine had to be more formal than this: five or six people sitting around a table with hardly enough room for their chairs. In front of them there were piles of bulging envelopes toppling in all directions, and they were reading. Nobody was saying anything. It didn’t seem like a meeting at all.
Two of the people there that night, Jenny Mueller and Michael Donaghy, became my friends. Jenny and I would co-edit the magazine together, and we still see each other every year or so. Soon it became clear that, in an English department without a creative writing program and a culture forever doubtful that a graduate student could write other than critically, I’d found a home.
Before joining the CR staff, I knew, or thought I knew, that I wanted to be a poet. But I figured that I would have to put that ambition on hold while working on my PhD, which I thought I needed to get a job. Now, among the poetry staff, I found other students who were at least as serious about writing poems as they were about doing their critical work.
Not that it wasn’t tough. I’m amazed that I even showed up for that first staff meeting. The people there challenged me and each other. It might have been the first night that Michael Donaghy turned to me to ask “who I read. ” If he were still alive he’d probably laugh at that. At the time, though, his directness caused me to forget the name of every poet I knew!
Still, this became a world I’d be more comfortable in than the literary critical world of the University of Chicago’s English department. The support I found at CR was cold in the sense that it was serious. For all of us, there was so much at stake. We were artists! At CR I began learning how to think that, if not to say it. There was among the staff, and still is apparently, an almost severe insistence on the very best writing. This quality drew me and sustained me, though it never put its arms around me. The connection among us, what was beginning to seem like family, wasn’t anything like what I’d thought of as familial before. That this alternate world was created by the staff members of CR amidst the somewhat hostile environment of a research institution devoted to training its students in rational, critical discourse—this is what, ironically, made the magazine so good, and, weirdly, nurturing.
It’s funny: as I write this I’m seeing just how much the severity, the coldness, and the impersonality of the University of Chicago’s insistence on the highest order of rational thought set the standard for CR. Why I felt more comfortable around the magazine’s staff may be why I now feel more comfortable teaching literature as a poet-critic than as a critic only, but the critic in me is as necessary to writing poetry as my imagination is. Writing poems is what I know how to do. I hear my way into my subject matter. But I know that the production of good art depends as much on sound judgment and critical thinking as good literary criticism does. For the artist the stakes of criticism are higher maybe, and the need to get it right may run deeper than it does for the critic. In order to emerge, my identity as a writer of original literature needed what I got at CR. It was nascent then, needed models and needed CR’ s artistic community. But nothing could have happened—the magazine or its staff members’ development as artists—without the apparently inhospitable environment of the U of C.
My connection with CR stretched beyond my time in Hyde Park. I started on the poetry staff, co-edited the magazine (with Jenny) for a year, moved to the nonfiction staff when that was needed, and then edited a special issue on neglected poets—all over a period of six or seven years. There were times when CR barely existed. (One year I think it came out just once, though it was a quarterly.) Keeping it going was always a struggle. And yet putting together the special issue sustained me while teaching literature courses for a year in Missoula, Montana, where I was miserable—so lonely I’d go out to eat just to be in physical proximity to other human beings. I thought what was making me unhappy was not just isolation but, mostly, teaching, so I turned down a tenure-track offer for another lit-crit job that year, decided I’d write full-time (whatever that means), moved to Seattle for six months, and then back to north Florida, where I’d grown up. I had no money, no idea if I could make it as a poet, and no hope (or wish) at that point that I’d find another university job. While I supported myself by typing for lawyers, I put together my last issue of CR, on people who I felt were just like me—neglected poets.
I took a lot of pride in working on the issue, was defiant in the midst of a world that knew nothing about what I was doing or what I aimed to do. Working on the special issue held me within the community of writers I’d become part of so incredibly just by chance, with their beloved high standards. And it extended at the same time into my work on the Black Sparrow Press edition of the novel Insel by Mina Loy, the neglected writer who had been the subject of my dissertation. So my post–Hyde Park emotional survival depended on both sides of the divide: the CR world of actual poets, and the scholarly world of the research institution—the yin and yang of my existence.